Movie review: “Words and Pictures” lacks chemistry

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From the June 12, 2014 edition

As high-minded concepts go, you could do worse than “Words and Pictures.” Set in a New England private school, it establishes a battle between two creatively challenged teachers over which of the title’s two elements is the most powerful. In the process, there’s some brainy flirting between the leaders of the charge, and student and teachers alike are newly inspired.

It might look good on paper, but on screen, the new movie from veteran director Fred Schepisi is a flat romantic dramedy with a fatal dearth of chemistry between its two leads.

Clive Owen plays Jack Marcus, a published poet-turned-disaffected English teacher. With his rumpled corduroy blazer and serious drinking problem, he bears the clichés of the once great writer.

Juliette Binoche fills the role of his nemesis-love interest, tough but fair art professor Dina Delsanto. A well-known painter, she’s lost her facility with a brush to rheumatoid arthritis.

With one salty comment in her classroom, Dina unintentionally prompts Jack to extend the central challenge, pitting words against images. They work with students to launch offensives and capture the attention of the whole school with the results. At the same time, each pushes the other to focus on their respective means of expression.

If only anything in Gerald Di Pego’s script were genuinely clever, or genuine at all. Instead, it’s a collage of thin, sometimes grating characters, contrived situations, and previously worn pieces and parts. Schepisi delivers it with a style that’s no more inspired to an aggressively bouncy soundtrack.

Owen brings his scruffy charm and penetrating intensity, and Binoche comes packing her innate intelligence and luminous beauty. But despite having the most to work with, there’s still something in each of their performances that’s akin to punching cardboard until it takes human shape.

And regardless of the efforts of everyone involved to convince us that Dina and Jack are falling for each other, there’s no sense of love — or heat, to put a finer point on it — in the love-hate relationship played out between Binoche and Owen. Unlike words and pictures, these two just don’t work together.